Wednesday, March 01, 2006

A rap for understanding

I know for many liberals, public radio is sacred and above reproach, or criticism. I’ve had too many conversations with so-called progressives that began with an indictment of mainstream news sources, only to be asked, “do you listen to public radio,” as if that solved the problem.

For me, public radio of the NPR variety is a fallback; something I listen to when I can’t find anything else on the dial. I will listen to certain segments of their programming, like Maine Things Considered, although of late, even Maine-based news seems to be lacking anything more than a business-friendly veneer to the stories reported. I do enjoy Terry Gross (one of the best interviewers anywhere, IMHO) and Fresh Air; I wish our own affiliates would carry Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now program.

Yesterday, while driving to an appointment, I caught the type of programming that I wish was the norm, rather than the all-too-infrequent exception. Alternative Radio carried Michael Eric Dyson’s Hip-hop Culture and the Legacy of Tupac Shakur. I had heard an earlier promo for this and made a mental note, mostly out of curiosity, to try to listen in. The busyness of life drove it from my thoughts, but sheer coincidence and time and my car intersected, allowing me to catch most of this 60 minute broadcast.

Let me first say that compared to my knowledge of the history of popular forms of music, such as rock, pop, and even less popular genres like jazz and blues, I know very little about rap or hip-hop. Other than the more political raps that I’ve heard from Public Enemy and Michael Franti, I'd say my knowledge of this musical form is surface, at best.

For someone like me, Dyson’s academic presentation, mixed with his own obvious love of rap and hip-hop, and his keen ability to rap and quote lyric after lyric from the past 20 or so years of hip-hop, was truly amazing. It’s rare to hear this type of programming anywhere except low-power FM and some community-based stations. Dyson’s historical perspective, political understanding and sympathetic treatment of Shakur revealed a totally different character than I’d been conditioned to view him as. It made me realize that I have a lot to learn about this branch music and culture. From Shakur’s roots, informed by Reaganomics and the accompanying poverty he experienced, Dyson’s presentation cast Shakur in a much different light than he was often portrayed by the press and the music industry. Dyson's talk was informative for the honest and refreshing way that he was able to demystify Shakur, who like many performers and cultural icons, ends up misrepresented, most often to cultivate an image, which will then be exploited through marketing.

I never knew that Shakur was deeply influenced by Shakepeare and aspired to be an actor. He was also a voracious reader, who read widely and across disciplines, even though he had dropped out of school. With Dyson deftly deconstructing his lyrics, for the first time, I saw Shakur as not some gansta thug wannabe, a cardboard caricature created by the pop culture machine--but someone who was a human being--a complex and intelligent performer and overtly political in his songwriting, not the

Despite some of my concerns about public radio, it still provides opportunities for alternative viewpoints. Of course, I’d be happy to see more segments like yesterday afternoon’s outstanding hour of programming.


weasel said...

Alternative Radio is a great series, every week at that time on MNPR. I like Democracy Now too, but in the back of mind I can't shake the feeling that it is Fox News for our predjudices. You can stream at home, right? I'm sure you know this site but this is the portal for the myriad of BBC streaming services:
The news is good but I reckon you would really love the documentaries and history shows on Radio 4.

This week is my last show on WRFR, btw (long story).

Richard S. said...

Reading this post, I was reminded that I've been meaning to finish my blog post on Boots Riley and his "group" (of two), The Coup. I'm not so up on hip-hop these days either, and I understand that I'm not missing much, as some old rap and hip-hop fans whom I've encountered (personally and through reading) tend to reinforce my own impression that the genre is now cluttered with empty corporate crap. But I definitely like some stuff that I hear coming out of car radios and being played in stores (after all, I do live in New York City) and I learn about stuff on the Internet.

And it's been fascinating learning about Boots Riley... I probably wouldn't hang out in exactly the same political groups as Boots - he was brought up by Maoists and he stayed a Maoist - but the broader Marxism that I've seen in his lyrics definitely appeals to me. And how refreshing it is, indeed, these days to find real, informed, class-conscious politics in "popular" music of any kind - including, or maybe especially, hip-hop.

weasel said...

I can't remember which comedian (Dave Chappelle? Chris Rock?) who during an effort by the Kerry campaign to hook up with P Diddy's "Vote or Die" campaign said this about much commercial hip hop: "The drive hummers, they flaunt jewelry, they objectify women, and they light cigars with hundreds. And Kerry thinks they are Democrats?"